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Level Up

Writer, illustrator, and knitter Franklin Habit joins us for his monthly column featuring humor and insights into a yarncrafter’s life.

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When at work, we all have our pet aggravations. Some folks grow tetchy when stuffed into a necktie or panty hose. Some folks hate office parties. Some would rather eat a bowl of broken glass than go to one more budget meeting. Me, I flinch when I'm asked to assign skill levels to needlework patterns.

I understand the rationale behind the practice of branding a project as easy, beginner, intermediate, difficult, complicated, spicy, yikes, @#!$%*, and so on. The goal, I recognize, is to pilot needleworkers (especially beginners) into safe harbors. There is such a thing as too much ambition. If you are as yet unsure of the difference between knit and purl, perhaps a project full of orders to "p5tog tbl" may not be for you. Perhaps it would make you cry, and flail, and kick people. If the pattern throws up a five-star flag to steer you away from torment, it will have done you a service.

In practice, however, I find that skill ratings tend to encourage the rank and file of the yarn world to be overly cautious, to grow bored, and–in the worst cases–to then drift entirely away from needlework.

I spend about half my life on the road, surrounded by knitters. Most of them wildly underestimate their levels of expertise.

"Is that your work?" I ask a woman whose exuberantly cabled sweater would look at home in a couture showroom. She says that yes, it is, and in the following breath tells me she doesn't feel ready to take on a certain pattern of mine because it was labeled by the magazine as being "intermediate," and she's just a beginner.

It happens all the time. Nervous crowds flock to patterns labeled "easy" because they fear they won't be able to cope with anything more. They cut their pleasure short because they fear failure. They doom themselves to hanging around at the bottom of the ladder. And that is silly.

What happens when a knitting project goes horribly, horribly wrong? What is the aftermath of a total crochet disaster? You grind your teeth. You glare at the cat. You rip out. You ball up the yarn and shove it back in the stash closet to wait for a happier day. You go to the store and just this once you buy a shower present like a normal person.

Nobody has died. Nobody has lost a limb. Nobody has taken your favorite bamboo needles and fashioned them into a wicker man and put it out on the front lawn and locked you into it and set it on fire.

So what, really, are you so worried about?

Please know that I am not asking this from atop a high horse. I am asking while clinging, lopsided, to a stumblebum horse that has tripped over more fences than it has cleared.

When I was a fledgling knitter I nearly swore off lace for life after repeated clobberings by a scarf pattern the publisher had certified as "Easy." It said it right there at the top: "Skill Level: Easy." Further down, in the introduction, they said it again, more emphatically. "Anyone can knit this scarf!" they said. Anyone! Even if you've never done a yarn over, or read a chart, or your head has fallen off and rolled away, or you have octopus tentacles instead of arms, or you are fighting off a platoon of hostile Venusians with nothing more than a tube of lip balm, you can knit this lace scarf! IT IS SO EASY!

You will understand that I felt terribly discouraged when–after my fourth attempt–I had done nothing but fray and tangle a perfectly innocent ball of lace weight that had hoped its life would amount to so much more. If I could not knit Easy lace, how could I ever hope to knit fancy lace? Why bother to try?

This is where I think the traditional designations fall off the beam. What does Easy mean? Easy how? Easy when? Easy where? Easy for whom?

I had already knit an "Easy" striped beanie while traveling to work on the Chicago Elevated Railway; so it seemed to me the lace scarf should be a pea from the same pod. What I did not understand was that even when fine-gauge lace is simple, you may not want to cast it on and work it from a chart while you're being fondled by the icky commuter on one side and jostled by the icky commuter on the other.

So I wonder if we might find a better way to communicate skill ratings than the old variations on easy, moderate, and difficult. Those sound like hiking trails, and knitting projects are less like hikes than like the people you meet on a hike.

So, how about:

  • Gadabout. Take this project everywhere and knit it at any time. Bars, beaches, skydiving holidays–go ahead. It's so simple you may finish it without even noticing.
  • Hermit. Turn off everything that vibrates or makes noise. Send the cat to the movies. Lock the kids outside. Disconnect the doorbell. This project will admit no other claims on your attention. Keep your eyes on the chart. You can call your sick mother some other time.
  • Drone. It's not at all complicated, it just goes on. *And on. And on. And on. And on. Rep from * 1,000,000x.
  • Nag. Perfectly fine, except for this one thing it does that you really wish it wouldn't.
  • Dream Date. Wonderful…and you're so happy to have it in your life…but it's keeping you up past your bedtime.

Whatcha think? What are your suggestions?

—–
Writer, illustrator, and photographer Franklin Habit is the author of It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008–now in its third printing) and proprietor of The Panopticon (the-panopticon.blogspot.com), one of the most popular knitting blogs on Internet. On an average day, upwards of 2,500 readers worldwide drop in for a mix of essays, cartoons, and the continuing adventures of Dolores the Sheep. Franklin’s other publishing experience in the fiber world includes contributions to Vogue Knitting, Yarn Market News, Interweave Knits, Interweave Crochet, PieceWork, Cast On: A Podcast for Knitters, Twist Collective, and a regular column on historic knitting patterns for Knitty.com.

These days, Franklin knits and spins in Chicago, Illinois, sharing a small city apartment with an Ashford spinning wheel and colony of sock yarn that multiplies alarmingly whenever his back is turned.

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  • thedoingplace

    A scanning a knitting pattern is like reading the blurb of a novel. Certain elements/words will make me reject it immediately thinking that it's not for me. Patterns fall into 3 categories - ones I can work on with kids around (easy), ones I can work on while watching television (medium) and ones I have to work on during the day with only the radio on (challenging). If I have to turn the radio off to concentrate, I probably won't do it.

  • froggylu

    Brain Drain -- look at chart, *(crochet 5 stitches, look at chart), repeat from * (examples: Patricia Kristoffersen & Mary Wurst doilies) Works of art when finished.

  • Bellainara

    I love this. Can Lion Brand be the first to start this trend?

  • Janet Chutro

    Almost...But: miles and miles of stockinette or ribbing interspersed with bits of lace or Fair isle.

  • monarchsmomma

    Your great! Love your writing style! Can we please see some of your projects in each category mentioned Gadabout, Hermit, Drone, Nag & Dream Date ;)

  • Vicky

    I bought (and finished) a lace shawl pattern that said "Enthusiastic Beginner" and also gave lots of nice information for those of us for whom it was our first lace. After doing that, I became much braver about trying new things and higher levels. I think most places it would have been labeled at least Intermediate.

  • Deborah Hale

    My insurmountable challenge, as I've aged, has become "lace". I've never learned to read a chart (although I keep trying) and I seem to have forgotten how to count. I used to be able to do lace patterns almost blindfolded, now even a simple feather-and-fan stumps me (because I've forgotten how to count!). However, with age comes...patience. What I was in too much of a hurry to do as a younger knitter has now become an obsession - I love cables. I buy knitting books BECAUSE of cable patterns! And yet, a simple "*k1, yo (*repeat 3 times), k2tog (x4)" has stumped me for the past decade.

    And yes, I'm the person you see knitting while waiting in doctor's offices, in line at the bank and drive-through windows, and anywhere else I might be waiting for longer than 30 seconds. (Including red lights.)

  • Roiana Haydel Buckmaster

    I like Gadabout, such a fun word and quicker to say then 'Coffee Shop Knitting' which is what we call it now. You need one under Hermit though, for those repeat chart projects that do require at least a period of Hermitage in the beginning till you got the pattern down, then if can move about the world fairly freely until you have to learn the next change up in the charts (Estonian Lace style shawls for example) Completely agree with you that too many people shackle themselves with a 'level title'. Case in point, a friend called me just yesterday to tell me what classes she is thinking of signing up for at a local Nov Fiber Fest. "Roiana, I am thinking of taking the Beginner Knitting Class, what do you think?" "Girl, I think you just knit a pair of SOCKS! WT@ do you need to take a beginning knitting class for?????" "Oh, but I'm just a beginner, I am sure I could learn something!!!!!"............. and may I add here that the socks were knit, on her own, from a book, double pointed needles, with only one question to me on the beginning. After a pause in the conversation, she said " ........... you're going to lecture me, aren't you?" - YA THINK??? In the interest of full disclosure I must add that I proceeded to give the very lecture I myself had been handed a couple years ago by a dear friend - so I have been guilty of level shackling too.

  • Stephanie Offer

    For most of the first year I knitted it was all garter stitch squares and scarves, I needed the simple therapy. But then when I joined ravelry I gradually got bolder and tried new things and the feeling of satisfaction when you "get" something new is fantastic. I don't tend to pay much attention to the skill rating but look at the skills and techniques involved. Buying a good book on technique is invaluable.


    Love the cartoon!

  • kddomingue

    Franklin, thanks so much for the giggle! Gadabout, dream date, hermit......I'm still snickering! I call those patterns with 9 hundred gazillion repeats "Snoozers". I have tried to crochet patterns labeled "easy" that had me pulling my hair out in frustration and wondering....... "Exactly how much brain damage DID my cousin cause when she dropped me on my head when I was a baby?". I have crocheted patterns labeled " advanced" that had me scratching my head as I stared at the finished product



    wondering where the hard part was because I evidently missed it somehow.
    So, as Stephanie has said, I find that I tend to ignore the ratings and instead scan the techniques and skills required to see if it is something I can work up with a minimum of hair pulling, screaming and cursing.
    By the way, I loved the reference to the wicker man!

  • Basicallybenita

    I think you could add Snoozer - which would be anything made completely in garterstitch or, if in the round, stockinette. This one is so monotonous that it's better than Ambien at putting you to sleep, but so pretty and wearable when finally done.

  • KyRed

    Love it!! However, on a serious note, I would consider myself a fairly experienced knitter and I still watch for ratings on patterns. A lot depends on whether I want to have a portable project that I can sit down without warning, or something to work on at home. Then of course if I just love it and have to have it, I'll figure out a way.
    What I love to see in a pattern description is "assumed skills/knowledge" and a list of types of stitches. This tells me right off whether I need to do some research before starting the pattern. Also if you wanted to add a novocaine/valium rating (especially for lace patterns), I would definitely find that helpful as well.

  • crocheting in VA

    I find that the more difficult a pattern is graded, the more I am inclined to give it a whirl. I enjoy the challenge of conquering a new stitch or a new set of stitches. Though, I'm not brave enough to design anything of my own, I so enjoy patterns! I have several file folders full of future projects.

  • http://contentemeant.blogspot.com/ Sara @ Content in the Meantime

    That's so true. Maybe I missed out on some great patterns because of the fear of the difficulty. Maybe we should take the label off completely. Just list what the pattern uses; sc,dc, fpdc, knit, purl,etc. Ususally when I look through the directions I can see if it is something I know would be simple or if it will be something of a challenge that I will enjoy.

  • ruby lily

    Thank you, I needed this article! I have found myself falling into the "drift entirely away from needlework" category (even considering giving away my yarn stash!) because I have hit a sort of plateau in regards to knitting and I've been afraid to really tackle something that wasn't labeled "easy". I let the silly fear of making mistakes (and learning!) prevent me from starting anything at all. Time to Level Up, indeed!

  • Kathy Boyer

    I Love your categories! gadabout! perfect

  • Kilibrado

    I can't say much because I'm laughing so hard I'm falling out of my chair. I absolutely love the way you put all this into perspective.

  • MMMBaker

    Too true- I usually ignore the difficulty rating- and just do a finished product that looks beautiful.

  • dianeinchicoca

    I like it, especially gadabout, hermit, and drone.

  • divahorne

    This was perfectly timed. I just rejected the thought of doing a mobius lace scarf... intermediate is about 200000 steps beyond my current crocheting skills. Perhaps I'd do better with a knit.

  • AutumsMom

    Enjoyed the article!

  • nancyknits

    I'm all for the changes. I admit though I really don't pay much attention to the ratings. I read the pattern, then if it has something that looks confusing I grab scrap yarn and needles and try it out. Usually I find the pattern doable, but not necessarily something I really want to do. If that makes sense? I guess I think I am an intermediate knitter willing to try new things.


    Keep up the great columns! They are always enjoyable.

  • knittywhitney

    I nominate Crampy - you're going to get a brain cramp, or a hand cramp, or both trying to make this.

  • hcb2013

    Just loved this column! What a great writer you are! I get ideas from different patterns or design my own patterns, so I don't rely much on patterns as such. I love working with stitch dictionaries--as long as they use words and not charts! Charts just addle me completely, especially if they're for lace or cables. Color charts make sense to me, but the other ones just don't.

  • Stacie LaBean

    Yes, those are the exactly the ratings I need..I could use those. I do a lot of Aran knitting but had almost the exact same experience with beginner lace on the bus and haven't tried it again. Maybe we need notes like movie ratings: intermediate - dangerous cables and a long-running increase. Thanks Franklin!

  • zzknits

    YES, these ratings should be used for patterns.
    When my daughter started knitting she chose a Rowan lace beanie. It was a 2-row simple lace pattern. Knitted flat and seamed up the back. She learned the basic stitches and skills. I was jealous that my mother kept me to knitting squares when I learned. My daughter soared making a hat her friends liked.
    Easy. HAH! It is all how it's presented. Just take one step at a time and you can accomplish anything.

  • Maria Edmonds-Zediker

    How about including the skills needed to complete the item successfully? "Project designed for those who can knit and purl" or "In this pattern, you should know how to increase and decrease and you will learn to work cables."

  • Fluffy

    Love, LOVE, L-O-V-E it!! Totally appropriate and born out by past experience. I thought it was just me being stupid, but look, it's Franklin too :-)

  • kittylady76

    I love your designations. I have only two - private and public. Private is when you need to be quiet and learn the pattern, have to do a lot of counting, or have a boucle yarn that you have to watch to make sure you knit (or purl) each stitch and don't miss one. Public is great for the bus, meetings, lecture classes, or visiting with friends. But we do have to remember there are three basic stitches -- knit, purl, and frog (rip it). I have used all three to a great extent. Sometimes I feel I use frog more than the others as I'm trying out new patterns, creating patterns and designs, etc.

  • Gayle Windsor

    I love the categories. I would add "Stick to It" - the patterns that you think "That can't be right" for the first few inches until it suddenly starts making sense and you can see how everything is going to pull together.

  • amylynn1022

    Honestly, Franklin, I think I've always read knitting (and crochet) patterns difficulty rating like that. Or at least since a cable knitter told me she could "never do Fair Isle" right after I told her that I could "never knit cables". Once I looked into it I realized that her complicated-looking cable project wasn't actually any more technically difficult than the Fair Isle mittens I was knitting at the time. I think one thing that can throw the ratings into confusion is the addition of a "genre", such as Fair Isle or cables or intarsia or whatever. I'd recommending adding more information like "Fair Isle - Easy" to say "this will be easy if you know Fair Isle, more difficult if you are learning Fair Isle or challenging if you are allergic to Fair Isle".

  • Jeanne

    Difficulty tends to be in the eye of the beholder. When I was brand new to knitting, I knit two, washcloth-size swatches (one of which included cables) and then I jumped right in the deep end and knit two socks. But then, I had the experience of trying to make a simple lace scarf and screwing it up all over the place. No one else on Ravelry had any problems with that scarf. No one. And it was as simple as the pattern/chart not showing that every other row was an all-purl row. I had no idea!

  • Tephra

    Hmm. I think I would rate them "autopilot" for things I don't even have to look at (some of which are definitely in your drone category), "check it" for things that I can do while watching TV or holding a conversation but need to pause and double check periodically (during commercials), "focus" where a good TV show or one with subtitles is right out of the question and maybe I should turn that off to be safe, and "unprintable" for those that leave me turning the air blue and making sailors blush.

  • Evol Jenius

    Oooh, just imagine how many strands you could hold if you had octopus arms! And not have to let go of your needles, either. And if things went wrong you could squirt ink at it.:^) Seriously though, I'm 61 and have been knitting since I was 10 or 11. I love an easy pattern now and then, but I'm not afraid to take on a @#!$%* pattern. All I can say is, don't be afraid, just try it. I've never been bitten or mauled by any knitting project. I've stabbed my fingers with the needles a few times and those chenille stems can be poky and occasionally I've tangled myself in my yarn, but no serious injuries in 50 years of knitting. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I don't really pay much attention to the skill ratings of a pattern, if I like the looks of it and it's not too expensive, I'll give it a go.

  • Jane Wilde

    The best pattern 'rating' system is the one that tells you what sts are required, e.g., "must be comfortable with p5tbl." In addition to your suggested system, a knitter would know what they were getting into pretty well.

  • LoveLoveFibers

    I like Franklin's categories. Most of the time I don't get the "hermit" time, but I DO tackle this kind when we're on a cruise with lots of "sea days". I learned to knit with a "how-to" book and an argyle sock kit when I was 13. Needless to say, the first sock had to be ripped out completely after I finished the second one, but it was an excellent way to learn, and I've never been afraid to try ANY pattern since. If you finish the project, and then make it a couple of times more, the pattern will be "burned" into your brain far enough you can tackle MOST levels anywhere. (I DO have "car projects", "waiting room projects", and such, but once you've conquered the pattern, you can start designing your own pieces, and come out with some pretty awesome creations!

  • Judy J

    I sit here reading the article and comments with a goofy grin on my face because the third day after my first class in knitting I was knitting cables using the tines on a plastic fork as a cable needle. My first knitting project was a sampler afghan I designed myself with cables, changing colors, intrasia, fair isle, and a simple lace as well as me correcting the stitch pattern that wasn't turning out the way the picture looked. After I cast-off and sewed it up I realized it was a bit shorter than I wanted so I added a strip of miter-squares to get it the length I wanted.

    Once you learn knit and purl you can just about do it all. My biggest grip then as now are stitch pattern writers (whether it's embedded in a pattern or not) who assume you know whether or not to wrap the yarn one way or other and other little details that make or break the stitch pattern.

  • Sunshine

    I love the part about sending the cat to the movies. When I tried to knit a lace swatch, my cat was yelled at and hid under the couch with her sister.

  • Colleen Sheehy

    I like it! Right now I have two active projects - one is my mindless, knit-in-waiting-rooms scarf, and the other is Must-Concentrate-At-All-Costs Lace Wrap. Charted lace scarf is on hold for now....ALL were classified as easy by pattern designers. EASY is in the hands of the knitter!

  • Gina Cantrell Nicholson

    I so enjoy reading your blog. I always find myself laughing out loud. Thank you for your witty insights!

  • Marianna Brough

    ADD/ADHD-friendly, or the converse. For me, the patterns that have instructions and charts laid out in the normal way, but have those little boxes that pop-up or off to the side with instructions for one little part of the pattern: that is ADD-unfriendlly.

  • Doris Margulies

    The rating system is RIGHT ON!! I love the Dream Date, but the Nag has gotten me several times over the years. Wish they would warn us with your system! :)

  • Soxy Jane

    Although I would probably send the KIDS to the movies and lock the CAT outside, I agree with your article. (Hmm, I wonder how much a movie ticket costs for a cat, who would probably sleep through the whole thing?)

  • Denise Herrell Koster

    Franklin, this is the best column you've ever written! LOVED it!!!

  • AnneB

    Totally loved this! Rather than levels, perhaps skills required, or stitches required as a list, like with materials. (So, lace requires knowledge of yo, ktog, ptog, etc. so you know what you'd need to learn to be comfortable, and what you already know.) But I would so love to do a pattern at the gadabout level, and then dream date. Lately I've been stuck with drudges.

  • Diana Hensley Tackett

    "Stupid" knitting/crochet, that project you can do without really using your brain.

  • tatiana

    I keep thinking a listing of the kinds of techniques in it would be better. Things like stranding, cables, dpns, ssk, k2tog, charted pattern, etc... I can handle cables and such but it's way easy for me to lose track of where I am in a chart. Developing patterns is easy for me but I hate doing fair isle and simply won't bother. Easier just using dupe stitch later.

  • Kit

    My biggest peeve is people who say, "oh I just look at the pattern and then I know whether I can do it." My most obvious problem with that is that since I do not have opportunity to browse a lot of patterns before I buy, I cannot look at the pattern and all I have is what the catalog says (sometimes) or what the website says (most of the time). There may or may not be a picture of the socks or sweater. The picture may or may not give a good idea about what are the tricky parts and what makes them tricky.


    What I would rather see is information about what elements are involved with a difficulty rating for some elements. For example, let's consider the following probably ridiculous sweater. Bulky yarn, 12 wide cable, 6 over 6 alternating left and right cross vertical at sweater front, 12 stitch wide lace panels left and right of center front cable, stockinette elsewhere, dropped shoulders, ribbed turtleneck, ribbing at cuffs and at hem at mid hip. Cable plain, lace extra fancy. Okay, I can do a plain cable, and I can probably do fancy lace in bulky weight yarn, but not extra fancy. I wonder how difficult the finishing would be? Are they using a seaming technique I am not familiar with? Could I substitute a simpler seaming technique if I need to, and simplify the lace? Well I could practice the lace for a matching scarf, until I got it right, and that might be fun. Fancy seaming techniques are not common so I guess I can take a stab at this one, because I like the look.


    Would anyone else read such a detailed description of a project to see whether it was worth tackling? I am somewhat comfortable with some cabling and some lace but not expert yet in either although I probably will be at some point, and so far I do not do any colorwork of any sort, as far as I know, not even stripes, except on lap afghans, and there just stripes or bands or blocks of color. And I like color changing yarns for some things. Can do knit purl yarnover, cast-ons and bind-offs, several increases and decreases, i-cords and a few other odds and ends knitting. Can read patterns and charts, and do my own patterns of several sorts, either designing on the needles or on paper. The latter makes it easier to try something I may not be able to do, because I can often redesign a part of the design I cannot do to be simpler. Perhaps a simple set of eyelets if the lace is too hard.


    Doing crochet I can mostly make chains, but I am determined to master more of it.


    But I have patterns that I got several years ago that I still cannot make. And have made a few "intermediate" patterns that barely seemed to deserve being called easy. And worst of all, bought books with ten or twenty patterns that said they had patterns from beginner to advanced that had two beginner patterns, cast on twelve stitches, knit all rows until your scarf measures four feet, bind off and cast on 16 stitches, knit all on first row, purl all on second row, repeat last two rows until scarf measures 52 inches, bind off. And everything else was designed to be worked by two octopuses and six monkeys hanging by their tails.

  • Kit

    I don't have issues with fear keeping me from trying a project. My main issues are that I start a project, thinking that I can probably learn enough to complete it soon, and well not yet, and a little later still does not come out like it is supposed to, so I start on something else, and finish some projects and cannot yet finish others, and unlike some knitters who buy yarn and do not start the project, I have long ago lost track of how many projects I have started but not yet finished. I do learn new skills often, and I do find ways to redesign some projects to be simpler, and I do start projects I can easily finish, so I usually finish quite a few more projects than I do not finish, but boy do I have a lot of unfinished projects and a lot of unstarted projects that I do not even know enough to get well started on. And right now I have a barely started project to do a mobeus scarf that I have tried to cast on at least eight times and have not even completed the cast on once, not even badly. Granted, it is a more difficult cast on than my usual cast on. But can you really call a project started when you cannot even successfully complete the cast on, and you have been knitting over five years and well over 100 successfully completed projects, not counting gauge swatches. Yes I know that a new cast on is as much of a learning experience as any other new technique, and I will master it soon, and meanwhile I am having fun and gradually getting better. But I really do overestimate my skills when I start a project much more often than I underestimate my skills, and so probably a third of my projects have a considerable shelf life before I figure every thing out. So I need some different categories. For example:


    What were you thinking? (I cannot even read the pattern, let alone knit it.)
    You and what army? (I can barely carry all the yarn for this one on a garden cart with four pneumatic tires, and the needles look more like wooden stakes for vampires!)
    Does this come with an electron microscope? (The yarn is so tiny you cannot see it with the naked eye.)
    Top Secret (This project was so secret that even the designer did not know what she was doing.)
    Maybe I should felt it and forget it (If I unravel it one more time, it will felt itself.)
    Help, I am surrounded by my knitting, and cannot get out, please send ice cream!


    What other design categories would people suggest for a perpetually over ambitious yet undaunted knitter?